Post Christmas Odds and Ends

In the past couple of weeks I’ve gone to a couple of elementary schools to assist in teaching classes. Last week I went to a rural mining town carved into the side of a mountain. There was a fresh dusting of snow, and from our elevated perch, we could look down upon the noisy mining operations below on the opposite side of the river as we were having snowball fights with these four, five and six year old kids in the schoolyard. It’s limestone: they carve it from the hills, but they don’t seem to do do in an environmentally destructive way. The “scarring” on the mountainsides seems minimal. The sun was glistening on the snow: It was a sublime morning. When you visit a school other than the one’s you teach at, you are greeted at the door and then go to the Kochi’s (principal’s) office and relax while they serve a very good cup of coffee: you treated as an honored guest and there is the prerequisite chat before meeting the students. You teach the class , come back down to the office and are thanked at length for your efforts. I had a great time and the kids were adorably cute. 
Nescafe is an acceptable morning drink in lieu of anything better, but I’d hardly call it a great cup of coffee. It’s what I’ve been drinking at home since arriving in Japan last August. Good coffee is readily available in Japanese cafes but it isn’t cheap. A small china-sized cup might cost about $3.50 cdn.  There are no mugs and there are no refills. The accompanying thimble-sized pitcher of cream seems impossibly small but, the cream is so rich, it is more than adequate to “whiten” the java. On impulse one evening last week, I ordered a “bodum” coffee-maker from Amazon Japan. It arrived at about 7:00pm (free of shipping charges) less than 48 hours later. I’m enjoying a “real” cup of coffee as I write this, hoping Andrew remembers the pound of Starbucks he promised to bring back, all the way from Port Dalhousie, Ontario.
I’m quite taken with the “hoodie” I recently picked up at the local mall. In various fonts and font sizes, including roman, gothic and script, it reads:
If one itself can’t be controlled, it lives, and improper in the city. RampanT heart. SHARPEN A TUSK  EVEN WHAT TIME”
Well; far be it from me to “gild the lily” but I think it’s fair to say that not even the most jaded and cynical heart could fail to be moved by such an assertion. Until next time, “dear friends”, I’ll leave those inspiring words with you.
PS: Still collecting my thoughts & notes on my trip to Okayama. Will post again within a day or two.
PPS: I mentioned the enkai (staff party and free pass to drink and behave like an idiot), in my last post. How do I                 wake up knowing  I’ve had too much to drink the night before? I dimly recall croaking out a version of                           Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at a karaoke bar. In my defense though, I can only say, “they MADE me do it!”

Merry Christmas etc.

Given that it’s Christmas, I’ve just cracked  a frosty can of Asahi, popped Neville Marriner’s “Messiah” on the IPod dock and settled in to write for a bit on the laptop. Merry Christmas everyone!

Ask any Japanese where Santa Claus lives and the response is instantaneous: Finland. As with Halloween, the Japanese have embraced good old Saint Nick with enthusiasm. A few homes even have Christmas lights up. Rudolph, carrying a heavy load, is the only reindeer the Japanese are familiar with (I never much cared for the Teutonic Team of sleigh-pullers in any case). Rooftop landings do not appear to be a “go” here. Supermarkets have decorated trees and constantly play festive seasonal music. Gift boxes of various liquors, chocolates, coffees and treats are stacked high on display. In deference to the holiday, there are even half-chickens in the meat department. That may not seem like much to you but, in Japan half a chicken is a large and unwieldly  cut of meat clearly desirable and available only on festive occasions. Despite the superficial similarities, Christmas is quite different in Japan: It’s an imported “entertainment”, innocent  of the religious gravitas we are accustomed to here in North America. As you peruse those $15.00 melons in the produce section, pay a little closer attention to those carols wafting through the store. Lots of sleigh bells and Santa Claus but nary a word about mangers or silent evenings. Christmas trees everywhere; but not a creche to be found. I like to think of an imaginary  Japanese “vetting committee”, approving those things they like about Christmas and utterly disregarding those things they don’t:

“This round yon virgin. What is round yon virgin?”

“It seems that crazy gai-jin believe that…”

“No! We go with fat man in red suit”!


But I digress…


Lesley suggested that I might write a little about shopping and it seems like a pretty good idea. I’ve previously written a little on the subject so I hope I  don’t repeat myself too much here! There is a smallish mall called The Plaza not even a five minute walk from my apartment. Like most Japanese, I tend to buy groceries on pretty much a daily basis, so I shop there often. The cashiers in the supermarket recognize me and always give a welcoming smile.

When I had a mandatory physical health check recently, the doctor suggested that I’d soon reap the benefits of healthier Japanese diet. That seafood comprises a large part of the Japanese diet is  clearly reflected in the size of any supermarket’s fish department. There are massive quantities of fresh and frozen seafood and even bags of dried finger-length fish. Fresh shellfish, octopus, cuttlefish, squid, herring, mackerel, and salmon (to name but a few) are available daily. The largest fish-market in the world is in Tokyo. On January 4th  2013, a perfect (for sashimi) blue-fin tuna sold there for 1.76 million dollars. One fish! A lot of money for a fish that was, little more than a generation ago, considered to be almost inedible, or at least, undesirable. But again, I digress…

Notwithstanding the health-giving benefits of a diet high in fish consumption, I’m not entirely convinced the Japanese diet is “that” much more salubrious than one from North America. Immediately upon entering The Plaza I find a pastry shop to my immediate left. Striding manfully past that, there is a bakery to my right within about thirty feet. A tad intimidating at first because you have take a platter and tongs and “load up” on your purchases. No big deal once you’ve lost the abject terror of living in a foreign country though! Quite apart from the sweet things, I like the panini’s, mini-pizzas and pastry encrusted sausages with tomato sauce. Delicious, but hardly lo-cal!

At this point, we pick up our shopping basket and enter the supermarket. We are greeted with a large section of pre-cooked meats and fish that have been deep-fried in panko. Again, very tasty but not particularly good for you. Look left and there is the relatively small “supermarket” bakery. A loaf of bread in Japan comprises about six slices, each of which is about twice as thick as an American slice. It’s white: It’s bland. Like “Wonder Bread”. Forget whole wheat, rye or pumpernickel. Don’t even dream about asiago! Ain’t gonna happen!

Spin 45 degrees and there is the liquor section of the store. This is where it gets pretty good. Sho-chu is probably the most popular drink in Japan. It is rice or barley-based, is served in a multitude of ways (straight, with hot or cold water and with club soda), and has an alcohol equivalent on par with wine. It is inexpensive and is sold in bottles or cartons that resemble Canadian milk jugs. Beer tends to be about the same price, more or less, as it is in Canada. It is also ubiquitous in vending machines on pretty much every street corner.  Spirits (Scotch, Vodka etc.) tend to be far less expensive than in Canada. Possibly because they do not have a long and tedious Christian, finger-wagging history of condemnation, the Japanese seem to have no  inclination to “punish” their citizens with onerous “sin taxes”.

Blink, and you will miss the breakfast aisle. Those long lines that include everything from oatmeal and granola to Count Chocula? Gone! Nada!

Similarly, (and I’ve mentioned this before), cheese is not a big deal in Japan. Little bland tinfoil-wrapped packets of cream-cheese. Meh!

The cleaning aisle? Everything is small! Dish-washing soap or laundry detergent; the packages are smaller.

The snack aisle rivals anything we may have in North America. It is huge and  includes everything from lemon-flavored potato chips (awful), to dried fish. I’m fond of a combination of rice crackers, peanuts and dried green peas. Again though, this is hardly lo-cal food.

Moving along, we find ourselves in the produce section. It gets complicated. There are a whole lot of things we have not seen before. Vegetables that just seem a bit strange. Melons, grapes and even apples that, by Canadian standards, are quite expensive. Oranges and bananas seem to be the only fruits that are moderately priced. That’s ok though, I’ll write more soon.

I am off to Okayama tomorrow for a few days. It will be the first time I’ve left Niimi since arriving in late August. I’m looking forward to getting away for a bit!

I’ll post again soon!












Damn Yankees!

Although the term “yankees” (yankiis) as used in Japan,  is certainly derived from the US, it doesn’t directly refer to Americans at all. Yankees, a relatively recent phenomena in Japan, are disaffected and rebellious teenagers who express their dissatisfaction with society in various ways. The attitude seems far more early Elvis and James Dean than 1967 hippie. It’s characterized by a kind of affected insouciance and sneering contempt. In junior high school (where I teach), that can’t be easy. When students are dressed in  clothing  clearly patterned on military uniforms, it must be difficult  to express a sense of individuality.

In fairness to Japanese students, the bar is set pretty high and it is not surprising that some students might adversely react to the high expectations placed upon them.  On any given day the work-load of a Japanese student is at least double that of a North American student: In any given Japanese class, there will probably be a couple of students sleeping at their desks. Not surprising given that they may have spent as many as ten hours in school and then may have attended a night school course on the previous day.

Let me be  clear: Overwhelmingly, the students are great. For me though, Friday classes can be a bit tough; Fifty minutes is a very long time to be standing in front of a class when a “yankee” student is constantly giving you “the finger”.  That’s especially true when the sensei is disinclined to ask you to contribute to the class because she is also intimidated by the “yankee” and, in any case has a pre-existing working relationship with an ALT with more than three years experience (compared with my three “one day a week”, months at that school). It kinda leaves me standing in front of a class with a grin (grimace) on my face and nothing to do. The first responsibility of the sensei however, is to her class, so I’d like to make it clear that I am not in any way being critical and, of late I have noticed that she is making attempts to include me in her lesson plans. Under difficult circumstances she’s doing a great job, and she also happens to be a very  good teacher. The ALT, Nathan (Naizan-san) is from one of my favorite cities, Portland Oregon, and has a great rapport with the students.

The question remains though; what do you do with a kid who constantly shoots his mouth off very loudly, bullies other students, gets up and disruptively strolls around the classroom mid-lesson, and completely refuses to participate in any classroom activities?

I’m perfectly OK with boisterous or high-spirited (genki in Japanese) students; I was pretty “genki” myself as a kid and I should also make it clear that North American teachers face exactly the same, and probably more disciplinary problems than Japanese educators. This behavior however, goes beyond mere youthful exuberance. It compromises the education of the other students in the classroom. One “alpha male” can incite other students, who otherwise might not be inclined to be problematic  in class, to “act up” and abet in really disruptive behavior. You then find yourself dealing with  two or three  kids “acting up” instead of one. It’s not a coincidence that problematic students are found in the same class. I’ve also noticed that these classes tend to lag behind those classes without the hard-core “yankee” students.

I was hoping to write at greater length about a few subjects but have been called upon to speak a bit about Sidney and the S.S.C.A. at tomorrow’s Niimi International Exchange Association annual Christmas party. I must brush up a bit but will post again soon.

Ta for now